Housing integration and the knee-jerk reaction of white flight is the central theme in “The Changelings,” a timeless novel by Jo Sinclair that is relevant today, more than 60 years after its publication in 1955. Although there are now laws to protect all citizens from housing discrimination, the themes of pervasive racism and the underlying fears that propel it are timely issues.
The story takes place in an Ohio town in 1945 and revolves around a close-knit working class neighborhood that is mostly Jewish, although one Italian family lives on the street as well. When a floor in a house becomes available for rent, the neighbors all worry that the owners will rent the rooms to black families (i.e., “The Black Ones”). The deep-rooted fear is that of the unknown — who are these people? Will they bring crime to the neighborhood? Will their moving in change the culture of the neighborhood so that it is not longer predominantly Jewish? Will the synagogue be forced to shut its doors?
The changeling and main protagonist in the novel is Judy Vincent, a young Jewish preteen girl who befriends Clara, a black teen whose family is trying to find a decent place to live. One night when Judy’s gang of clubhouse friends betrays and humiliates her, she bumps into Clara, who was watching silently. The chance meeting changes Judy’s life and perspective, as she eventually realizes that nothing much differentiates Clara from herself, other than Clara’s religion and skin color. This realization later gives her the courage to confront her father, who has shunned his other daughter and grandson because of an intermarriage.
Even with a considerable number of characters in the book, most were well fleshed out with distinct personalities and mannerisms. Sinclair shifts the narrative’s focus throughout the story to five other neighborhood families, all of whom have similar, vehement reactions to the notion of an integrated neighborhood. Each family has their secrets, their shameful pasts. Reading their stories calls to mind the Anna Karenina principle made famous by Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
One such family is the Goldens. Besides having a daughter who is mentally challenged, one of their older teenage sons has been ill his whole life and can do little else but watch the world go by from his sickbed. Jules, 17, befriends young Judy and writes her a poem called “The Changelings,” which was revelatory for Judy, as she comes to realize that she has an identity and values separate from the adults in her life, some of whom have not been good role models.
“I’m the changeling in my house — the way Jules has it in my poem. I’m not scared. I’m not going to run around crying and hating people. Spying to see who is going to do me dirt. See? I’m not going to talk their language. I’m going to be free, so I can go out in the world. And — and beautiful. That’s in the poem. You can’t be free if you’re scared of everybody, can you?”
When one of the neighbors on the street witnesses what she thinks is a black man having relations with one of their own, she spreads the word, causing the entire neighborhood to erupt in a panic. This also leads to an extreme reaction when, later, a black man is beaten up when he simply asks a homeowner if there were any available rooms for rent. When Judy sees that no one is stepping forward to help the bleeding man, she springs into action. That is arguably the pivotal moment in her life where she leaves her childhood behind, with the uncomfortable realization that the adults around her are flawed.
The book is mostly from the perspective of the Jewish families; other than Clara, of whom the reader only gets a limited glimpse of her story, the black people in the book are nameless, only referred to as “The Black Ones” or the “Schwartze.”
It is hard not to wince when reading certain portions of the book, particularly the extreme reactions of the Jewish neighbors at the mere prospect of a black neighbor. These are the same people who put money in pushke boxes regularly. These are the same people who themselves fled their countries of origin due to anti-Semitism. But that is the point — to make the reader as uncomfortable as Judy as she grapples with the realization that she and Clara represent the next generation whose obligation it is to cross boundaries, to reject the social norms of their communities and families and fight these injustices.
Despite this, there were many tender moments and meaningful passages, including the poetry written by the dying Jules. One stanza in a poem called “Die Schwartze” was particularly eloquent:
“Now comes The Black
From out the secret dark cell of my heart.
Now comes The Black Enemy, unnamed, unseen,
For I fear his name, his face,
For I will not admit his name is mine,
His face is mine!
Now comes The Black to overwhelm me,
From out the sky, from out the street,
From out the heart of me!”
The novel was likely a bold one in its day, a powerfully, unflinchingly forthright novel that was predictive of a rapidly changing, multi-ethnic America.
This is an intense, captivating and astute book that is applicable today. It is a book that deserves to be dusted off of library shelves and be re-examined in light of present-day issues of racism.
Jo Sinclair was born Ruth Seid in 1913 in Brooklyn to immigrant parents and grew up in Cleveland. She chose her pen name as it was both gender- and ethnically-neutral, as she strove to publish in a male-centric publishing world. Nonetheless, although she spent much of her life writing, she published only four full-length novels as well as a memoir. Sinclair died in 1995 at the age of 82. “The Changelings,” which was reissued in 1985, won an award sponsored by the Jewish Book Council. Sinclair also won the Harper Prize for her first novel, “Wasteland.” PJC
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.